North Korea’ Kim Jong-un has arrived in Russia in his heavily armoured private train ahead of a meeting with Vladimir Putin – a rare meeting between the two leaders – as Moscow seeks supplies of weapons and ammunition to feed its war machine in Ukraine.
Mr Kim emerged to the strains of a military band and stepped onto a red carpet in Khasan, the main rail gateway to Russia's far east, to meet a number of Russian officials before moving on. There has been no confirmation of where the summit with Mr Putin is to be held, but the route of Mr Kim’ train suggested he would not visit the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, where Mr Putin was attending an economic conference, and which was the location of the only previous meeting between the two leaders in 2019.
The Vostochny Cosmodrome would provide a secure location for the summit, and the Russian leader said he would be visiting it. “When I get there, you will know,” Mr Putin said of his plans.
The Russian president is increasingly isolated on the international stage and his country is facing tightening Western sanctions over its 18-month invasion of Ukraine, which sees Moscow expending thousands of artillery shells, missiles and other pieces of military hardware each week. A counteroffensive from Kyiv’ forces has upped the pressure on Russia as it struggles to keep up with the required weapons production domestically.
A sign of the pressure Mr Putin is under appeared to come in his speech at the economic conference on Tuesday. Raving against the West at several points in the long address for providing help to Ukraine, he also threatened Rishi Sunak, claiming that Britain had orchestrated an attempted attack by Ukrainian special forces on a Russian atomic facility. Without providing any evidence, Mr Putin said that Ukrainian “saboteurs” taken captive by Russian forces had revealed under interrogation that they had been instructed by British secret services.
Warning the UK of “serious consequences” over the accusations, despite having offered no details – a tactic that has become common practice for the Russian leader – Mr Putin added that the UK was “underestimating” what could come next. In an indication of the facile nature of his accusations, he suggested that the attack could have been overseen by Washington without the British prime minister’ knowledge.
“Do they understand what they are playing with?” Mr Putin said. “Are they trying to provoke us into retaliating against Ukrainian atomic power stations? Does the British prime minister know what his secret services are doing in Ukraine?”
As for Mr Kim, the meeting is a chance for North Korea to get around its own crippling UN sanctions – which Russia initially supported – and seek energy and food aid, as well as advanced technology for satellites and its nuclear programme. Vostochny would be a symbolic venue for discussions over military and aerospace cooperation.
The Kremlin’ spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed only that Mr Kim had entered Russia, with the state news agency Interfax saying this had happened “in absolute secrecy”. The South Korean news agency Yonhap later published a photo that it said showed Mr Kim’ train in Ussuriysk, a city about 60km north of Vladivostok that has a sizeable ethnic Korean population. Mr Peskov said Mr Putin and Mr Kim would meet after the Vladivostok forum, and that the meeting would include a lunch in Mr Kim’ honour.
Mr Kim’ delegation is said to include his foreign minister, his top two military officials, and a number of people with connections to the country’ weapons industry, as well as representatives of the country’ space and technology sectors.
Footage released by Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of Russia's far eastern Primorsky region, of Mr Kim’ stop in Khasan showed the North Korean leader sitting in a big white chair, talking with a delegation led by Alexander Kozlov, Russia's minister for natural resources. Mr Kozhemyako said the Russian delegation had discussed the potential launch this year of joint tourism and agricultural projects and hoped to deepen economic ties with Pyongyang.
North Korea may possess tens of millions of artillery shells and rockets based on Soviet designs, and the top-ranking US military officer, General Mark Milley, said that Mr Putin’ courting of Mr Kim shows just how desperate he is.
“It looks to me as if Putin has gone to North Korea with a tin cup in hand asking for weapons, munitions and support, which is an inverse of their previous relationship,” he told ABC News.
Washington has repeatedly warned Pyongyang against providing weapons to Russia, but says that talks on a possible deal have been advancing. On Monday, the US state department spokesperson, Matthew Miller, said he wanted to “remind both countries that any transfer of arms from North Korea to Russia would be in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions”.
“Having to travel across the length of his own country to meet with an international pariah to ask for assistance in a war that he expected to win in the opening month, I would characterise it as him begging for assistance,” he added.
The Kremlin spokesperson dismissed such warnings on Tuesday in quotes to state-run media. “While implementing our relations with our neighbours, including North Korea, the interests of our two countries are important to us, and not warnings from Washington. It is the interests of our two countries that we will focus on,” he said.
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